Leadership in the Way of the Cross – Sherwood Lengenfelter

Leadership in the Way of the Cross Sherwood Lingenfelter
Leadership in the Way of the Cross by Sherwood G. Lingenfelter
Published by Cascade Books on May 16, 2018
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, Leadership
Buy on Amazon

This book is for people who are serious about leading people--men and women who have accepted big challenges, who have passed through the fire of tough decisions, who have acknowledged they at times have failed, and have recovered for the next challenge, but do not want to repeat the past. The thesis of the book is that the journey of leadership takes us deep into the dangers of both authority and risk, and our attempts to avoid one or the other of these dangers will precipitate crisis. As a leader who desires to flourish, it is critical to ask, is anyone following? And are we following Jesus as we invite others to follow us? In this book I invite you into my journey, and the journeys of other ministry leaders, through the deep waters of crisis and the challenge of learning to lead so that people are following. This process begins with self-discovery--disclosing default habits, fears, and hungers--followed by trusting the Holy Spirit to work God's transformation within us, and then to engaging the hard work of mobilizing his body, the people of God, so that every part is doing his work. Sherwood G. Lingenfelter is Senior Professor of Anthropology at the School of Intercultural Studies, and Provost Emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary. He is author of Leading Cross-culturally (2008), Transforming Culture (1998), and Ministering Cross-culturally (with Marvin K. Mayers, 1986, 2003, 2016).

Crafted out of ten cohorts of doctor of ministry students, Leadership in the Way of the Cross is what Sherwood Lengenfelter and his classes learned from telling their own stories of ministry trials and challenges. From these stories, Lengenfelter develops two primary reasons for leadership failure: First, leadership theories are often formulaic, rigid, monocultural, and individiaulistic. They do not consider individual context and reduce leadership to a regimented system that does not allow for personality or context. Second, most leaders do not have adequate opportunity or desire to be exposed to their own blind spots and imperfections.

Overall, Lengenfelter’s conclusions that pastor leaders must embrace authenticity and vulnerable, be a part of community, admit to imperfection, distribute leadership, and focus on God’s glory are all good conclusions. It just takes a while to get there. The biggest shortcoming in Lengenfelter’s book is that he relies heavily on anecdotal experience as told to him through the doctoral program he teaches. The result is that the narratives are written like academic vignettes and not as compelling stories. The narratives were originally written for an academic assignment and, even though I’d qualify Leadership in the Way of the Cross as an academic book, the movement from assignment to book vignette is clunky at best. It’s not that the point doesn’t come across, it’s that it comes across very clinically and matter-of-factly, missing a pathos that compels readers to care why these case studies are important.

There is also an element of evaluating these scenarios of ministry failure or challenge from the perspective of hindsight with the assumption that a different decision would have a more positive result. For example, in chapter two, Lengenfelter tells the story of a church leadership divided on a couple important issues where a “difficult person” found themselves in the minority. This led to that “difficult person” and ten other families leaving the church. The difficult person—given the name Thorn here—claimed that the pastor exhibited too much authoritarian power. But was that true? Not at all. The pastor compromised on the decision with Thorn, the Board approved the decision, and a congregational vote overwhelmingly approved the decision.

Yet, Lengenfelter writes that the pastor could have done something different to stop this divide. The point was that, having labeled Thorn a “difficult person” and marginalizing him, the pastor made it so that Thorn was unable to have any sort of victory. And I see that point, but it’s overshadowed by the story of an individual who sulks because they didn’t get their way and claims the pastor acted too unilaterally when in fact the pastor had majority support in the congregation. Lengenfelter doesn’t seem to concede that some individuals simply will not be brought under the authority of any leadership.

There are other chapters that make a stronger case for their respective points, but the writing style is such that it’s rather difficult to get through—and I say this as someone who reads scholarly journals for fun. So while I commend the work within Leadership in the Way of the Cross, it was a slow read and difficult to work through. The academic tone and clinical structure may prove to be a turnoff to the very group of people who need this book most.